Several Republicans in the U.S. Congress who voted this year to overturn net neutrality rules -- with most opponents arguing the rules would create the first-ever regulation of the Internet -- have now signed on to sponsor one of two bills that would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to shut down websites accused of infringing copyright.
Twenty-seven Republican lawmakers who opposed the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules are sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act(SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives or the Protect IP Act in the U.S. Senate. One of the main arguments against the net neutrality rules is they bring unneeded regulation to the Internet that could slow innovation and broadband deployment.
No Democratic sponsors of SOPA or Protect IP voted against the net neutrality rules.
The goal of both SOPA and Protect IP is to shut down so-called rogue websites selling pirated music and movies or counterfeit products such as clothing and medicine. While Protect IP has been controversial, debate has been more heated over the more expansive SOPA, which would allow the DOJ to target websites accusing of "enabling or facilitating" copyright infringement.
Opponents of SOPA, including Public Knowledge, Google and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), have argued the bill would allow copyright holders to seek court orders targeting legitimate websites that feature user-generated content. The bill would allow the DOJ to seek court orders requiring domain name registrars and ISPs to block U.S. access to sites accused of infringing copyright, and critics have suggested that Web users' efforts to circumvent those blocks will lead to security problems.
Eleven House Republicans who voted in April to overturn the FCC's net neutrality rules are cosponsors of the SOPA, which would allow the DOJ to also seek court orders forcing online advertising networks, payment processors and search engines to stop doing business with or linking to foreign websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. The bill would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders in some cases.
Prominent Republicans who opposed net neutrality but sponsored SOPA include Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, one of the leading critics of net neutrality rules; and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Goodlatte has called for some changes to SOPA and has said he's willing to work with critics of the legislation on their concerns.
Meanwhile, 16 Republican senators who voted against net neutrality rules earlier this month are sponsors of Protect IP, a bill awaiting action in the full Senate.
Protect IP, introduced in May, would allow the DOJ to seek court orders requiring search engines and ISPs to stop sending traffic to websites accused of infringing copyright. The bill would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders requiring payment processors and online ad networks to stop doing business with allegedly infringing websites.
Among the Republican senators who voted to overturn net neutrality rules but sponsor Protect IP are Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
The recent debate over SOPA is full of "hypocrisy," Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason
University, wrote in a blog post.
"The conservatives rush out and breathlessly denounce each and every effort to impose Net neutrality regulation because of the danger of empowering an already over-zealous bunch of bumbling bureaucrats at the FCC," wrote Thierer, former president of the libertarian think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "Yet, with their next breath many conservatives praise SOPA even though it also empowers government to muck with the inner workings of the Internet."
On the other side, some groups that pushed for net neutrality rules have complained about regulations that SOPA would create, although many opponents of SOPA haven't focused on regulatory concerns. Opponents of SOPA and Protect IP have focused more on free speech, due process and security concerns.
But Thierer sees an inconsistency in that approach, too. "The liberals decry SOPA and want it stopped at all costs," he wrote. "There's never been a copyright protection measure they liked, of course, but each time one pops up we hear them claim that our analog era Congress is not well-positioned to be designing industrial policy schemes for the Internet. But most liberals do a complete 180 whenever online privacy or Net neutrality regulations are the subject of congressional inquiry."
Both sides don't see a problem with their approaches. Two Republican lawmakers said SOPA and Protect IP target only illegal activity.
SOPA "doesn't regulate those who are engaged in lawful activity on the Internet," Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an email. "But it does cut off the flow of revenue to criminals who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to rob America's innovators and job creators of their hard-earned profits."
The bill provides "due process" to websites accused of copyright infringement, he added. "A federal judge must first agree that the website in question is dedicated to illegal and infringing activity," Smith said. "Only then will a court order be issued directing companies to sever ties with the illegal website. Legitimate websites have nothing to worry about under this bill."
Protect IP would give U.S. companies a legal recourse to address the crime of copyright infringement, added Daniel Patrick Head, spokesman for Senator Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican and sponsor of the Protect IP Act.
Protect IP and net neutrality are "two different proposals that address different problems and circumstances," Head added. "Network neutrality would allow the federal government to dictate what private network providers/businesses can and cannot prioritize in terms of internet traffic -- which is regulation."
A comparison of Protect IP to net neutrality regulation is not warranted, he added.
On the other side, supporters of net neutrality who oppose SOPA said net neutrality rules are intended to protect Web content from blocking by ISPs, while SOPA would block content.
"The intent of net neutrality is to open the Internet to everyone without allowing ISPs to favor anyone," said Art Brodsky, communications director at Public Knowledge. "SOPA goes after Internet content and Web sites, assuming U.S. jurisdiction over the entire world while allowing for private companies to demand payment processors and ad suppliers stop dealing with a site merely on the allegation of infringement."
Public Knowledge has also complained that SOPA could allow ISPs to violate net neutrality rules in the name of copyright protection.
Groups who support the current level of Internet freedom and openness should support net neutrality and oppose SOPA, added Heather Greenfield, spokeswoman for the CCIA, a tech trade group.
The net neutrality rules, passed by the FCC last December, "didn't regulate the Internet itself -- it just blocked dominant ISPs from essentially regulating the Internet," she said. "SOPA would direct private companies to essentially create privatized Internet censorship -- or face liability for what's on their site.
"It's better to be against Internet regulation regardless of how's it's labeled and whether it's the government or companies holding the reins," she added.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.